Veolia. Many Pittsburghers would be hard pressed to tell you what that is, if asked, but the result of their work is well known to the city’s residents. Veolia was the private firm contracted to manage the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), and is the entity responsible for the lead crisis in Pittsburgh that began in 2017.
Without seeking state approval as required, Veolia began using a cheap, ineffective chemical intended to reduce the lead in our water. Instead of reducing lead levels, this chemical corroded the old, existing water pipelines and actually caused a dramatic and rapid increase in the levels of lead detected. To add insult to injury, Veolia cut PWSA staff in half, rendering the utility practically useless to mitigate the crisis effectively.
The consequences for Veolia’s negligence? An $11 million payday and absolution. Rather than investigate Veolia’s mismanagement of our water, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has decided to file suit against PWSA alone.
The Our Water Campaign was launched in 2017 by a coalition of community groups in direct response to the city’s water crisis. Aly Shaw, Environmental Organizer with Pittsburgh United, states on the campaign website: “The Our Water Campaign has worked for several years to address the problem of lead in our drinking water. Every city resident deserves access to clean drinking water. We know that lead poisoning can result in severe, long-term health problems, and so we are heartened that the Attorney General is taking Pittsburgh’s lead issues seriously. However, we’re concerned that this legal action focuses singularly on PWSA, the public authority in charge of cleaning up the lead crisis, rather than on Veolia, the Paris-based water corporation that managed PWSA during the time in question. For two years, we’ve worked with local residents to make sure that Veolia is held accountable for their mismanagement of PWSA and their role in the city’s lead crisis. We’d like to see the Attorney General’s office do the same, and place blame where it belongs.”
The entanglement with Veolia came as a result of a public-private partnership. A public utility, in this case PWSA, outsources management to a private company in an effort to save on operational costs and resources. What is usually overlooked in these deals is the lack of accountability imposed on these private entities, and the results are often disastrous. The burden to fix the problems they cause, while living with the result of their negligence, falls squarely on the shoulders of the public.
And as always, the less privileged among us continue to bear the brunt of it. Replacing just one of the filters in our “free” lead-removing pitchers costs $15 for roughly 30 days of non-toxic water (for a large family, that’s reduced to a couple of weeks at best). In addition to the toxicity of our water, the city’s aging water and sewer infrastructure is failing. Basement flooding caused by sewer backups and flash flooding are common occurrences, with little done to sufficiently address the causes.
PWSA and ALCOSAN have a $4 billion dollar plan to invest in remedies to the flooding and sewage issues that are becoming a way of life for many Pittsburghers. Recently, the Our Water Campaign held a series of lobby meetings with our local, state, and congressional representatives, with the goal of gaining their pledged support to ban privatization of water and sewage services in Pittsburgh, to implement a green-first solution to the city’s flooding and sewer overflow problems, and to support workforce training programs and requirements that ensure good paying union jobs that will prioritize hiring local residents.
The response from our elected officials is extremely encouraging. Mayor Bill Peduto signed the pledge, signaling a shift in his past position, and he intends to push ALCOSAN to implement a green-first approach to their infrastructure solutions. Three city council members, one county council member, and five state representatives and senators also signed pledges to support these efforts. US Congressperson Mike Doyle agreed to co-sponsor the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act in Congress.
There were a number of officials who declined to meet with lobby groups or make this commitment, but were willing to take other actions towards these goals. Of greatest concern to the campaign was disagreement with the goal to ban privatization and public-private partnerships, an essential step in protecting our water. Residents are encouraged to reach out to our representatives and encourage them to act in favor of keeping our water under public control, not corporate. The commitment to invest in and protect our water by so many of our elected officials is truly a testament to the power of activism, and we can’t give up.
More information about the Our Water Campaign can be found at http://www.PittsburghUnited.org/OurWater. Follow the campaign on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ pghunited) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ OurH2o/) to stay informed and support the cause.
PHOTO:Mayor Peduto with the Our Water campaign pledge
Cheryl Bauer is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective.